September 23, 2021

Jim Sheeler knew how to get beneath the cliches and platitudes that serve as scaffolding for the grieving.

“Jim said, ‘You know, if somebody tells you he would give you the shirt off his back, I would say, oh really? Tell me about a time he did that,’” said Kay Powell, the retired obituaries editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Andrew Meacham heard that story, too.

“Did you see her do that?” Sheeler once asked.

No, came the reply, “but I did see her give someone the shoes off her feet.”

Sheeler spent part of his career writing obituaries about regular people. His Rocky Mountain News epic, Final Salute, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing “for his poignant story on a Marine major who helps the families of comrades killed in Iraq cope with their loss and honor their sacrifice.”

Sheeler, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, died last week, according to The Associated Press. The cause of death has not yet been reported.

He was 53.

Read Sheeler’s obituary in The Denver Post, another by a former colleague in the Colorado Sun, the one from Case Western Reserve’s The Daily. Their stories overlap to show a journalist who gave time to his subjects, peers and students.

“He just hung out with these people for months to really understand their motivations and emotions,” said Steve Miller, who wrote obituaries for The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg until retirement, in an email.

“What he did in ‘Final Salute’ went way beyond the ordinary art of the obituary writer,” Miller said. “He took it to a place where grief could unfold in depth.”

Tom Hawthorn, who a freelancer who writes obituaries for The Globe and Mail in Canada, met Sheeler at an obit writers conference.

“He knew meeting the grieving took a special touch,” Hawthorn said in an email, “and he was passionate about telling their stories, as well as those of the departed.”

That approach came at a time when more and more newsrooms were starting to publish in-depth, feature obituary reporting, Powell said. When Meacham prepared to interview for the job at the Tampa Bay Times, Sheeler was one of the people he called.

“In just talking to him, you could get a glimpse of how he approached people with such sensitivity, and yet he did not write eulogies, he wrote stories,” said Meacham, who wrote feature obituaries for the Tampa Bay Times for eight years and is a past president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. (Poynter owns the Times, and I work with them now writing feature obituaries.)

When Sheeler spoke about “Final Salute,” he often held up a white glove with a hole in one finger. He told the story behind it to Chip Scanlan for the 2006-2007 edition of “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.”

“Part of the Marines’ dress uniform includes a pair of white cotton dress gloves,” Sheeler said.  The gloves feel rough when one of the Marines shakes your hand, but when they take them off, they’re actually soft. After one funeral, I noticed that one of the Marines — the one who fires the shots in the rifle salute at the end of every funeral — had a hole at the fingertip of one of his gloves. I asked him about it, and he took the glove off. ‘We do so many funerals that sometimes they blow out,’ he said. Then he handed me the glove and said, ‘Keep it.’

“For me, that glove was the key to the story. At one point in the article, Maj. Beck tells the Marines that when a family member comes up to shake his hand at the funeral, he’ll often take the glove off. To me, that was the goal of the story; to show that moment, the bare hand underneath the glove.”

Jim Sheeler’s ‘Final Salute’ was published in 2006. The Rocky Mountain News closed in 2009. (Courtesy: Denver Public Library Digital Collections)

Roy Peter Clark contributed to this story

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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